What the Bleep do we Know?
William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, and Mark Vicente, Directors
Captured Light Industries, 2004

It is one hundred and sixty years since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began writing their important philosophical work The German Ideology, whose preface ends with a joke: “Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads…they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water.” They go on to tell us that this “valiant fellow” is the type of “revolutionary philosopher” then popular in Germany—an Idealist, in fact, of the Hegelian variety. Were Marx and Engels to teleport themselves from the realms of Spirit into the mundane world of matter that we inhabit today, they would be relieved to find Hegelianism largely moribund as a philosophical movement; but a casual visit to the Religion and Spirituality sections of any bookstore almost anywhere in the world might surprise them. For here, Hegel lives on, reincarnated, as it were, as a New Age Idealist. And it is in those stores that the producers of What the Bleep Do We Know? (WTB) are going to make out like bandits, as the DVD box set of their hit movie falls into shopping bags as empty as space itself, with the full force of Newtonian mechanics. Thud. Ching-ching.

WTB is essentially a feature-length infomercial for the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, in which talking heads discuss quantum physics and meditation, interspersed (rather clumsily) with a fictional narrative about a deaf woman (played by Marlee Matlin) who wrestles with issues of self-image one moment and epistemology the next. The film has inspired many viewers to engage in the kinds of conversations you maybe think other people had in college: conversations about the nature of being, the plasticity of time, the essence of matter, and the power of the mind. This is probably no bad thing. Unfortunately, however, WTB ’s huge commercial success (it sold in excess of $7 million worth of tickets at the box office) means that Hollywood is going to start looking at New Age scripts about the nature of being with new respect, if not for their ontology then certainly for the bottom line. (Although, on the plus side, maybe we will finally get a movie made of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. With Richard Gere and Haley Joel Osment as father and son?)

The all-too-solid straw man that is beaten to a pulp in WTB is the old-fashioned notion that the universe is made of matter that relates to itself via Newton’s mechanical laws—a view that has been dead in scientific circles for about a century. Still, it is always exciting to consider the uncanny findings of contemporary physics—that there are objects (quarks) that can be in two places at once, that the universe is mostly nothing (form, after all, is emptiness), that there might be multiple universes, more than four dimensions, and that time itself might be illusory, more than unidirectional, and perhaps capable of change. In WTB, this scientific agenda is appended to the bizarre finding that water molecules are affected by human thought. Now we might not be the kind of “valiant fellows” who believe that water bends to our wishes, but WTB insists that since water molecules are alleged to crystallize according to the mood of the human mind, then why indeed might not the whole of reality do us the convenience of accommodating our will? The nexus between New Age spirituality and postmodern narcissism has rarely been so blatantly paraded.

At the core of this argument are two common misunderstandings concerning Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which is widely thought to mean that all knowledge is relative, because any observation of some-thing affects the thing observed. Heisenberg showed that when subatomic particles are examined, one can measure their momentum—but that will change the measurement of position, and vice versa. Thus, we can measure both aspects of these particles objectively, but only one at a time. This sets limits to scientific objectivity; it does not abolish it. The second misunderstanding is the conceit that jumping from the level of subatomic particles to the human world is like taking a trolley bus ride downtown. It is no such thing. It is a leap of mind-bendingly enormous proportions. And so to imply, as WTB does, from the Uncertainty Principle (misconceived and misapplied) that human perception and thought construct the world, is simply mistaken. Kant might have been useful here; subatomic physics is not.

How are we to explain the extraordinary popularity of WTB? Partly it is a case of fortunate timing. Documentary is the new rock and roll—independent, anti-establishment, relatively cheap to make, and with new and more flexible lines of distribution. Partly it speaks to the irrationality of our times—New Agers, evangelicals, and fundamentalists of all persuasions have more in common than they would ever care to acknowledge, and among those commonalities we can list hostility to science and a deep desire to find a stable source of personal power in an ever-changing world. In the drift from materialism to mentalism, we are usually accompanied by His Majesty The Ego, who cleverly shifts gears from “mind is world” to “my mind is the world.”

And so here we are in 2005, still drowning in subjective idealism, a philosophy that is notoriously difficult to disprove. But as WTB suggests, one doesn’t have to “take it at face value.” You can always “test it and see if it is true.” However, this reviewer does not recommend jumping into a lake as an experimental strategy. Chances are, gravity will apply, whatever you think about water molecules. And if Marx and Engels cannot persuade us of the merits of treating matter with a bit of respect, then I suggest we meditate on this more recent definition, from the writer Philip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Emptiness, remember, is form.